Obstacles to reconciliation
Egyptian commentators say there has been no significant breakthrough in the resumption of Egyptian-Turkish relations. Two exploratory rounds of negotiations have been held in the last four months, one in Cairo in May, the second in Ankara in the first week of September. The meetings convened at deputy foreign minister level, with Hamdi Loza heading the Egyptian delegation and Sedat Önal the Turkish delegation. The protocols and agenda were much the same in the two rounds.
In interviews with Bloomberg, Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri underlined three important elements in assessing the progress of the talks and their future prospects.
Most important is Turkey’s involvement in Libya. It is clear that Turkey is not taking serious action on two core requirements of the Berlin Process: the removal of the mercenaries and foreign fighters Turkey introduced into the country, and the reduction of Turkey’s own military presence in western Libya. A plan to implement these points was discussed in the second Berlin Conference and provided for phased, proportionally reciprocal withdrawals by both Russia and Turkey. It was never put into effect.
Cairo supports the position of the Libyan 5+5 Joint Military Committee (JMC) on this issue. The JMC, an output of the first Berlin Conference, maintains that the continued presence of mercenaries and foreign forces threatens the Libyan political process. Turkey continues to cite the agreement it struck with the former Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) as grounds to maintain its military presence until a new, elected government comes to power and determines the fate of the agreement. Ankara’s refusal to implement its obligations under the Berlin process naturally affects prospects for the resumption of relations with Cairo which has been working to help restore stability to Libya.
The second element is the timeframe Madbouli mentioned. Madbouli has said Egyptian-Turkish relations could be restored by the end of the year if outstanding issues are resolved. As upbeat as the statement sounds, it implies a process of confidence building. And Libya, where elections are scheduled for mid-December, will be the main testing ground. Will Turkey alter its policies so as to smooth the pathway to that crucial juncture?
Madbouli’s belief that exploratory talks cannot go on indefinitely appears to be shared by the Turks might be thinking along the same lines. In remarks to Turkish media, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicated that progress needs to be made in the talks before the two sides are in a position to exchange ambassadors.
The third element is political will. How strong is Cairo’s and Ankara’s resolve to normalise relations? According to the closing statement of the last meeting, the two sides agreed to continue consultations and affirmed their desire to achieve progress “to facilitate the normalisation of bilateral relations”. Foreign Minister Shoukri also told Bloomberg that Cairo was “keen to find a solution” and reach a formula for restoring normal relations.
It is clear that Cairo’s foreign policy outlook differs from Turkey’s. Cairo’s vision for regional stability is one in which all countries of the region attain their interests through peaceful political practices. It is the antithesis of the militarised foreign policy adopted by non-Arab regional powers in the past decade. The latest application of the Egyptian foreign policy outlook is to be found in the Egyptian-Iraqi-Jordanian cooperation mechanism that emerged from the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership in August. This tripartite mechanism was established as a fulcrum for regional development and the realisation of the participants’ mutual interests. One of the lessons it offers is that diplomacy is a more effective way for countries to attain their interests than militarisation, whether through conventional means such as building military bases abroad or unconventional means such as transporting mercenaries and other irregular foreign fighters to assist proxies in other countries.
Egypt’s official statement also mentioned Iraq, Syria and Palestine, all of which fall within the scope of Egypt’s immediate national security. It is no coincidence the three countries were singled out by name. Egypt’s relations with all three have grown significantly closer, and Egyptian gas will soon pass through Jordan to Syria and from there to Lebanon. The increasing realm of shared interests between Egypt and its neighbours in the Levant can only bear fruit in a stable climate, and that requires Turkey to change its foreign policies and attitudes towards the region.
A major outstanding concern is Turkey’s continuing harbouring of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Will Turkey agree to extradite suspects wanted on security-related charges? The isuue was raised before the last meeting, but so far no information is available. The Turkish authorities are likely to hand over a few individuals implicated in criminal cases but for the most part will refuse Egypt’s demand, arguing that the charges are “political”. A related issue is the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated media in Turkey which Egyptian authorities say Ankara promotes. An anti-Egyptian message also persists in Turkish state media, even though some of the more vocal pundits have softened their tone or had their volume temporarily muted.
What is motivating Turkey to restore its relations with Egypt to normal? Turkish investments in Egypt have not been significantly affected by the intergovernmental friction. Most observers believe that Ankara’s shift in its relations with Egypt is driven by domestic discontent arising from President Recap Tayyip Erdogan’s crisis-generating policies which have isolated Turkey as never before, both in the West and the Arab region.
Others point to Ankara’s desire to cooperate with Egypt over arrangements in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey claims that the maritime boundary it drew in the Eastern Mediterranean does not harm Egypt. Whether or not this is the case, Egypt’s allies, Cyprus and Greece, have objected to the unilaterally imposed boundary that Ankara based on an MoU with an interim government in Tripoli. Ankara needs to understand that any normalisation in Egyptian-Turkish relations will not come at the expense of the Egyptian-Greek-Cypriot alliance.
Egypt made this clear when the Cypriot president came to Cairo to participate in a meeting of the bilateral intergovernmental committee in the week preceding the second round of Egyptian-Turkish exploratory talks. During the visit Egypt reiterated its position on the dispute Turkey precipitated with Cyprus and Greece. Egypt opposes Ankara’s unilateral imposition of a maritime border and its provocative drilling activities in areas Greece and Cyprus claim fall within their territorial waters. International law and legitimacy, the respect for other nations’ sovereignty and non-intervention in others’ domestic affairs must remain the governing principles of international relations.
It appears that, despite some cautious optimism, contacts between Egypt and Turkey have not moved beyond the “exploratory” and “testing” phase. It is also too soon to assess the results of this phase. Still, it is an important step in the much-needed efforts to reduce regional tensions and end the cycle of conflict.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly